Press release | 25 March 2021 | pp

Where Do Art Treasures Originate? – Major Contribution to the Initiation of the Restitution Debate

Art historian Bénédicte Savoy receives Carl Friedrich Gauß Medal of the Braunschweigische Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft

The art historian Professor Bénédicte Savoy has been awarded the 2021 Carl Friedrich Gauß Medal of the Braunschweigische Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft (BWG) for her outstanding academic contribution to transnational modern art history. The medal will be awarded on 30 April 2021 during a virtual ceremony following the colloquium “Collecting, Owning, Sharing.” The event will be broadcast live on YouTube.

The Carl Friedrich Gauß Medal is awarded annually to an outstanding scholar or researcher in recognition of their scientific achievements at national and international level. The Braunschweigische Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft (BWG) is a renowned scientific society with a longstanding tradition in the state of Lower Saxony whose structure and aims mirror those of the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities.

Culture transfer, art theft, and looted art as research interests

Bénédicte Savoy, who is also a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, has previously received numerous awards for her work, including the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation in 2016. She is head of the Chair of Modern Art History at Technische Universität Berlin. Her work focuses on transnational museum history, the different forms of intellectual and material appropriation of cultural goods in times of war and peace, culture transfer in Europe, art theft, and looted art. Her current projects, such as a close cooperation with the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, explore the development of methods between the legal acquisition of art treasures and their theft or expropriation. Savoy is fighting to make museums not only places of wonder but also archives of humankind’s heritage as well as places of debate regarding the cultural interpretation of this heritage,

Current debate on provenance research

Based on her research interests in art and cultural transfer in Europa, museum history and art theft, and looted art, Savoy has campaigned for intensive provenance research for a number of years as well as for information regarding provenance to be presented in European museums and exhibitions, and for the restitution of cultural assets, particularly those taken from Africa. In 2017 she criticized the lack of transparency of the permanent ethnological exhibitions planned for the Berlin Humboldt Forum, calling for clearer disclosure of the origin of objects, especially those with a colonial past. In protest against the rigidity of the museum world, she resigned from the prestigious advisory board of the Humboldt Forum, thus bringing the national and European debate about the provenance of European museum art treasures to the public's attention.

Currently, she is once again at the center of discussions about the imminent opening of the exhibitions at the Humboldt Forum, which has been delayed due to the pandemic. The debate particularly centers on the Benin Bronzes to be displayed as one of the main attractions in the new east wing of the Humboldt Forum. The Bronzes, which once decorated the palace of the Kingdom of Benin, today Nigeria, were brutally stolen by British soldiers during the kingdom’s colonialization. For many years now Nigeria has made extensive efforts for their return. At present, those responsible are still struggling to reach a decision.

Restitution report for French President Emmanuel Macron

Savoy, who was born in France, is not only art historian at TU Berlin. She also holds an international professorship for cultural history of artistic heritage in Europe, 18th - 20th century at the Collège de France in Paris. In 2018, she was commissioned by president of France Emmanuel Macron to conduct research together with the Senegalese professor of economics Dr. Felwine Sarr into how art and cultural treasures from European colonies made their way into French museums. This research produced the high-profile report “Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain.

Vers une nouvelle éthique relationelle,” which recommended the immediate return of a majority of the objects, assuming they have been claimed back, an important move that would symbolize the beginning of a new relationship.

Africa’s fight for its art

Savoy has also recently published a new book titled, “Afrikas Kampf um seine Kunst – Geschichte einer postkolonialen Niederlage” (published by C. H. Beck). in which she describes how many African countries have been fighting for over 50 years for the return of tens of thousands of treasures displayed in museums across Europe. The book particularly focuses on the 18 former colonies, which acquired independence in 1960, and examines the question of which actors, structures, and ideologies contributed to the failure of an orderly, fair return of cultural assets. In doing so, Savoy explains how the arguments of the opponents of restitution at that time are similar to those of today's opponents.

Virtual ceremony to award the Carl Friedrich Gauß Medal

The Braunschweigische Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft will award the Carl Friedrich Gauß Medal in a ceremony on

Friday, 30 April 2021, 14:00. The livestream on YouTube is public.

Following welcome addresses given by BWG president Professor Otto Richter and the city of Braunschweig, Professor Dr. Thomas Döring, head of the gallery of prints at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig will speak about Savoy’s achievements and award her the Carl Friedrich Gauß Medal. The ceremony will be followed by a

keynote lecture by Professor Bénédicte Savoy titled: “Lost in lists? How museums do (or do not) create knowledge”

If you would like to participate in the colloquium “Collecting, Owning, Sharing” which is to take place in the morning from 11-12:30, please register no later than 23 April 2021 by sending an email to the BWG management office at: info(at)


Prof. Dr.

Bénédicte Savoy